By Aaron Boike, B.S. Kinesiology, ACE Certified Personal Trainer and Health Coach – Owner of 3CLICK Fitness

Workout nutrition is a hot topic these days, as workout enthusiasts work to find the perfect balance between optimizing their performance and helping keep their body in the optimal state to burn fat and lose weight. To properly decide how to fuel your workouts, you first need to decide what the primary objective of your workout is going to be, what your fitness goals are, and the duration of your workout.

Your Workout Objective and Intensity:

High intensity workouts, such as sprinting or circuit training, tax the body’s glycolytic systems that utilize primarily carbohydrates for fuel. Therefore, before high intensity workouts, having a pre-workout snack or meal with a dose of carbohydrates is considered by most be essential for optimized performance. With lower intensity workouts, such as a walk or casual bike ride, we rely more on our oxidative energy systems, which burn primarily fat for fuel (either free fatty acids in the blood or stored bodyfat). Therefore, carbohydrates become less important to consume before your workout. For less fit individuals, a pre-workout snack might be necessary prior to even a low intensity workout to keep blood sugar levels even and energy levels high.

Your Fitness Goals:

If your main goal is to optimize your athletic performance, you will likely want to take in a higher dose of fuel before your workouts. This will optimize blood sugar levels, glycogen stores, and energy levels. If weight loss is your goal, you want to be mindful of the calorie content of your pre-workout, as it can be easy to negate the amount of calories burned during your workout by consuming a calorie rich shake, smoothie, or snack ahead of time. Good research has shown that low-intensity cardio may be most effective in a fasted state, as the body is most likely to dip into fat stores when insulin and blood sugar levels are low. (See “What is Fasted Cardio and Does it Work? from

Your Workout Duration:

For lower intensity aerobic workouts lasting less than 90 minutes, such as a walk or relaxed jog, you likely wont need to take in any more than just water pre-workout to feel your best. If you are surpassing the 90 minute mark, your body will likely use a good deal of it’s stored glycogen (carbohydrate stores found in the muscle and liver) and your body will need replenishment to continue performing at a high level. Consuming a slow to moderate digesting carbohydrate before a longer workout can ensure your energy levels are topped off and you’re ready to perform your best. For shorter bouts of very high intensity that require a high energy output, consuming carbohydrates ahead of time has been shown in research to boost performance.

The Protein Factor:

Having free amino acids in the bloodstream from digested protein has been shown in many studies to have a “protein sparing effect,” meaning that the body is less likely to dip into your hard earned muscle to breakdown amino acids to fuel your workouts, or recover afterward. In addition, having an intake of protein prior to an intense bout of exercise has shown to promote an Anabolic, or muscle building, environment in the body, promoting the development of strength, endurance, and muscle gains.

Timing is Everything: 

The ideal window for your pre-workout meal is 90-180 minutes pre workout, which allows enough time for you to digest your food and have the energy readily available in your system for use during intense exercise. However, when longer time frame is not possible, a pre-workout snack can do the trick without the feelings of fullness and bloating that can happen when a full meal is consumed too close to a workout.

What to Eat: 

Most experts agree that a slow to moderate digesting carbohydrate source is the most essential pre-workout nutrient to take in. Sources such as fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains are great options. For protein, you can likely eat your standard protein sources, such as eggs, meat, fish, nuts and seeds, fowl, and dairy. A well balanced meal with protein, carbs and healthy fats is perfect if your workout is more than 90 minutes from mealtime. If your workout is less than 90 minutes from mealtime, you might want to look at easier to digest proteins, such as dairy, eggs, or a supplemental protein shake.

A Few Good Pre-workout Snack Options: 

  • A slice of whole grain bread with almond of peanut butter
  • A serving of oatmeal topped with almonds or walnuts
  • Greek yogurt topped with blueberries
  • An orange and a scoop of protein powder

Now fuel up and crush it at your next workout!